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Voluntourism: VWA's guide to avoid doing more harm than good as a volunteer

Voluntourism: VWA's guide to avoid doing more harm than good as a volunteer

Date Posted: 16/12/2015
This is your must-read VWA guide to avoiding the pitfalls and challenges presented by the legitimately often criticised sector known as 'voluntourism'.
This year the word 'voluntourism' was officially listed in the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time! So it would seem that this (estimated) $billion sector is here to stay. 

But increasingly commentators, NGOs, and the international media are raising legitimate concerns about the sector, its motives and the true value of its impacts. Here, then, is VWA's brief guide to voluntourism and how you can ensure that you choose a volunteering experience that is responsible, ethical and that will deliver a real, positive, sustainable impact.

Firstly, what is voluntourism? Well, as the name suggests, voluntourism is the practice of either combining volunteering with tourism - for example a gap year travelling South East Asia with a few weeks stop-over to help out in an orphanage - or, at worst, the use of volunteering as a direct form of tourism itself - for example, when an organisation offers programmes that combine large periods of recreational time and social excursions with a few hours of teaching English language lessons 'on the side' (for a simple an digestible overview of voluntourism, the short film/documentary 'The Voluntourist', by Chloe Sanguinetti, is available to stream for free here.)

But in a wider sense, the term voluntourism is increasingly used to describe poorly planned, perhaps cynically motivated, volunteer 'package holidays' which are suspected of potentially doing more harm than good and often take advantage of the good intentions and kindness of volunteers for financial gain.

If you are considering volunteering abroad then it is critical that you understand these issues and that you research your options thoroughly and responsibly.

Issues to consider and questions to ask include:
  • Are you suitably skilled or qualified to undertake the work in question? For example, could you successfully secure and complete a job undertaking similar work in your home country? If not, then you probably should not be doing that type of work in other countries.
  • Does the volunteering organisation in question carry out a detailed assessment of your suitability to volunteer, cross-referencing your skills and expertise with the needs of the communities, projects or people that it claims to help? If not, it is likely that their primary concern is securing the fees that they ask you to pay rather than genuinely addressing the needs of local people.
  • Might the project or programme you are considering simply be denying the opportunity for much-needed paid employment for local community members? For example, there are very few communities in our experience which lack the skills or motivation to carry out basic construction or building works, so rather than volunteer to build water wells for 2 weeks in Malawi, simply donate the money through a reputable, local NGO so the community can make use of the money directly. And if you want to visit Malawi, do so as a tourist... bringing yet more investment and income to the local community without 'stealing' jobs.
  • Does the organisation you are considering actually design and implement its own projects, monitoring and publishing their successes and failures, or is the organisation a 'middle-man' which will place you with a third party organisation over which it has very little control? In the case of the latter, it is very difficult for this type of agency to know what is happening on the ground and therefore concerns ranging from your security, to the standard of your accommodation, to the true impact of the project will be more difficult to identify and monitor.
  • Does the organisation profit from the fees you pay and, if so, why? There are thousands of highly effective, reputable, grass-roots, locally owned and operated NGOs and charity's who are desperate for volunteers because they need your skills and expertise, not your money. Although there are some examples of good commercial volunteering projects, always try to ensure that the fees you pay are simply covering the cost of your food and accommodation and therefore are not a) diverting funds as profits which do not benefit the local community, or b) are not redirecting funds away from the project in order to cover the cost of your volunteering experience (i.e. try to ensure that the local community is not picking up the bill for our volunteering experience).
  • Can the organisation in question provide a comprehensive range of positive feedback from previous volunteers and are they able to put you directly in touch with a selection of previous volunteers who can answer your questions and confirm that the organisation is effective and ethical? If the organisation is indeed effective and ethical, it is highly likely that its previous volunteers will be absolutely more than happy to help promote it and therefore speak with you.
  • Is the project you are considering based on a genuine assessment of the needs of the community, does the organisation work closely enough with that community that a clear and strong relationship between the two is obviously present, and can the organisation provide evidence of its success with previous projects and their sustainable benefits within that community? If the answer to any of the above questions is no, then you should probably stay well clear!
  • If the project or organisation is involving volunteers with orphans or other vulnerable children or adults, are measures in-place to check the suitability of volunteers to work in that context - such as mandatory criminal background checks - and has the project been designed in a way which does not cause further disruption or emotional upset to those already, emotionally vulnerable individuals? For example, you should always avoid any short-term volunteer opportunities working in orphanages through which you can become yet another adult which a child becomes emotionally attached to who then leave or abandons them just a short time later.
In summary, the most important aspect of selecting any volunteering opportunity is that you take your time and complete thorough research on the organisation, its projects, and the impact that it has and continues to have.

VWA would argue that volunteering, particularly in a development context, is a highly valuable, rewarding and important endeavour that does not need to be muddled-up with tourism. Travel, discovery and exploration is a hugely important and valuable undertaking to expand your horizons and develop your world-view, but the aims and objectives of volunteering are not likely to be genuinely compatible with those of travel and tourism: good volunteering organisations will always put the needs of the communities they serve first, and that means that your experience as a volunteer might legitimately need to be their second concern. If an organisation is focused largely on selling you an experience where the priority seems to be planning your recreational time, ensuring you get to cuddle a load of cute kids, or promoting the fantastic 'adventure' you will have then they are probably missing the point in our opinion: volunteer to give, not to receive.

By definition volunteering is about sacrifice, giving, sharing and helping others, and those are all things to be proud of and to encourage you as a volunteer to embrace. There should be no need to throw in a bit of tourism to get you signed-up and excited!

So, commit to an ethical, well organised volunteering experience, or travel the world responsibly and seek adventure, but just remember that either will require careful planning and serious investment, but neither should be mistaken for being the same thing!

For more information on choosing the right volunteer experience, please contact a member of the Volunteer West Africa team, at info@volunteerwestafrica.org

PS: And just in-case you were wondering, VWA does of course meet all of the ethical standards discussed in this article! So happy volunteering friends...
Author: Volunteer West Africa

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